Joe Biden landed in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah to a tepid welcome from the Saudi crown prince whose country he once pledged to make a “pariah” on the world stage.
While Saudi Arabia announced it would open its airspace to flights from Israel, making Biden the first US president to fly directly from Tel Aviv to the kingdom, expectations of further gains during his visit remained low. The US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told journalists onboard Air Force One not to expect any bilateral announcements in response to American demands that Saudi Arabia pump more oil to calm global energy markets after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Saudi Arabia is keen to prove its independence from US interests as it increasingly courts Russia and China.
“From the start, my aim was to reorient – but not rupture – relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years,” Biden wrote in the Washington Post prior to his visit, sidestepping his pledge on the campaign trail to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah”, and the later release of a US intelligence report stating that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, “approved” an operation to capture and murder the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
“It’s a completely different Saudi Arabia, one that in many ways has modernised and opened up a bit, but is also seeing greater crackdowns – and the Biden administration is brutally aware of all this,” said Dina Esfandiary of the NGO Crisis Group.
Biden’s visit means carefully stage-managing relations with Prince Mohammed, the Kingdom’s powerful de facto ruler, who observers say has the upper hand as Biden courts his goodwill at a time of rising global oil prices mounting a challenge to his presidency domestically.
The two shared a fist bump on Biden’s arrival, although the president later warmly shook hands with the king, Salman bin Abdulaziz. At the start of the president’s Middle East trip, officials said he would avoid close contact such as shaking hands as a precaution against Covid.
The US president is under intense pressure to repair the fragile relationship between two nations, one that traditionally relied on the kingdom liberally supplying oil to the global market in exchange for the US’s backing in areas of security and defence.
This has increasingly shifted in recent years, exacerbated as the relationship between Biden and Prince Mohammed has soured and Saudi Arabia looks to Russia and China to diversify its interests.
“The message from Saudi is you can’t tell us what to do, we’ll help you as far as it suits us but we won’t go against our own interests,” said Esfandiary.
Cinzia Bianco, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, agreed. “The Saudi leadership has learned to do without seeking validation from the United States, and Bin Salman in particular – he’s learned to survive and maybe even thrive within the region and to some degree internationally, without getting validation from the US administration,” she said.
Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, said that, with the visit to Saudi Arabia, Biden was reneging on previous promises to prioritise human rights. “It’s a very huge backing down actually,” Cengiz told the Associated Press. “It’s heartbreaking and disappointing. And Biden will lose his moral authority by putting oil and expediency over principles and values.”
Saudi Arabia’s recent cooperation with Russia has included an agreement for Rosatom, a Russian state company, to build a nuclear power plant in the kingdom, as well as signing an agreement last year to “explore ways to develop military to strengthen the military and defence cooperation” between the two countries according to the deputy defence minister, Prince Khalid bin Salman.
China is historically the largest importer of Saudi Arabian oil, while the kingdom has bought Chinese arms including drones and fighter aircraft. Last November, US intelligence agencies concluded that Saudi Arabia is manufacturing its own ballistic missiles with the help of China, according to satellite imagery.
Bianco stressed that the US administration saw Biden’s visit as a vital opportunity to intervene and warm relations before Saudi Arabia moves ahead with Chinese and Russian deals that largely remain in their infancy. “The US administration sees an opportunity to undo all of that or take a step back and create some space,” she said. “There’s a lot on paper rather than in reality, and there’s still space for the administration to try to create some distance between Saudi Arabia, Russia and China.”
Yet as Biden landed in Jeddah to discuss how to increase the global supply of oil in order to bring down prices, doubts persisted as to whether he would fly home with anything to show for his visit at all. Shortly before his arrival, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia had more than doubled its imports of Russian oil in order to free up more of its own crude for export, shunning demands for sanctions from the west while increasing profit margins amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Maybe the US administration had good intentions when it began setting up this trip, but ultimately it’s making them look bad – they’re losing the public relations war,” said Esfandiary. “It’s not clear that they’re going to make any gains, my sense is that everyone will walk away disappointed.”